TV Violence - What We Know but Ignore

Violence on the tube won't be resolved until economic incentives are reversed

I HAD 23 rewarding years with CBS News as a correspondent at home and abroad and six years with Ted Turner and CNN. And if both associations ended with blow-ups over what I considered issues of principle, I harbor no hard feelings.

My problem with television goes beyond my own relations with the medium, although my experience in television gave me a special sensitivity to its baneful effects on the American psyche. Let me put it in a sound-bit: Television, celebrating violence, promotes violence. By rewarding terrorism, it encourages terrorism. By trivializing great issues, it buries great issues. By blurring the line between fantasy and reality, it crowds our reality. And people are beginning to catch on.

I do not know why conservatives seem generally more concerned about sex on television and liberals more concerned about violence on television. The Christian right is appalled at the number of sex scenes. Of 45 such scenes watched by USA Today in a sample week, only four involved married couples. Thirty-nine involved adulterers or unmarried persons.

Others are more appalled by violence. By the age of 18, according to the National Coalition on Television Violence, the average American will have witnessed 200,000 acts of violence, including 40,000 murders. Opinion polls indicate that up to 80 percent of Americans today think there is too much violence on television.

``In the absence of family, peer, and school relationships,'' said the 1969 National Commission on Violence, ``television becomes the most compatible substitute for real life experience.'' John Hinckley, who withdrew from school and family life, spent many hours alone in a room with a TV set, retreating into a world of fantasy violence. When questioned by the Secret Service after shooting President Reagan in 1981, he first asked, ``Is it on TV?'' Anyone who has worked in television knows of its power to create a reality of its own that may crowd our real reality.

Less benign is what people will sometimes do to get themselves and their causes authenticated by television. Prison rioters sometimes list as a primary demand that they be able to air their grievances on television. You may say that TV is the victim, not the instigator of terrorism. But the dirty little secret is that television enjoys the tingle of a terrorist incident. It enjoys the ratings, and profits, that go with televised terror. ABC scored an exclusive interview with the captain of a hijacked TWA plane in Lebanon, who spoke with a captor's gun to his head. A triumph for ABC - and a triumph for the terrorists who gained international recognition by this promotional stunt.

NBC had an exclusive interview with Abu Abass, wanted for murder in the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, and NBC agreed not to reveal where it had interviewed the fugitive, who used his opportunity to justify terrorism on American TV. Anthony Quainton, who used to head the State Department's Office for Combatting Terrorism, has associated the increase in casualties during hijackings and hostage-takings during the 1980s with a desire to ensure media attention.

Channel 7 in Miami, long at the bottom of the ratings pile has emerged as one of the most successful independent stations in the nation. Why? On a typical evening, Channel 7 reported on three rapes, two plane crashes, three hit-and-run accidents, and a wild-monkey attack.

The quest for ratings is not limited to the entertainment studio. It has spread to the newsroom - in case you can still tell the difference. The ``docu-drama,'' and, more recently, the syndicated ``reality-based shows,'' as they are called, have almost erased the line between fact and fiction. News programmers are sometimes driven to recreation themselves.

Four years ago, the ABC Evening News showed a simulation, not immediately identified as such, of an American diplomat suspected of espionage handing over a briefcase full of secrets to a Russian agent.

I suspect that kids who go around shooting kids, on purpose or at random, no longer know the difference between the bang-bang they grow up with on the television screen and the bang-bang that snuffs out real lives. Maybe the kids they shoot will come back to life after the commercial. The desensitizing effect of endless violent acts is the most destructive aspect of television's general assault on a sense of reality. E.B. White predicted in the 1940s that television would become either ``the test of the modern world, a saving radiance,'' or ``a new and unbearable disturbance of the modern peace.'' Which is it?

Violence and sex on television have not developed by happenstance. In the 1950s, ABC, the youngest and least watched of the three networks, found a formula to catch up with NBC and CBS. It was ``The Untouchables,'' a program full of violence, highly successful, that established murder and mayhem as the way to lift ratings. Script writers today will tell you that they are ordered to insert more scenes of sex and violence and that scripts have been rejected for being too tame.

``The most important thing,'' said former Surgeon General Jesse Steinfeld in 1972, ``is that a casual relationship has been shown between violence-viewing and aggression.'' The Commission on Violence and Youth of the American Psychological Association just reported five to six violent acts per hour on prime time, 20 to 25 on Saturday morning children's programs. Cable and MTV had more. Finding: ``There is absolutely no doubt that higher levels of viewing on television are correlated with increased acceptance of aggressive attitudes and increased aggressive behavior.... Children's exposure to violence in the mass media, particularly at young ages, can have harmful lifelong consequences.''

We have long known all this. The media have often covered up such knowledge. In 1968 CBS assigned me to cover the hearings of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

One interim report dealt with TV and violence. I taped a summary for the Evening News. Shortly before air time I was told that CBS executives had intervened to censor my report. One item deleted was a paragraph stating that while ``most persons will not kill after seeing a single violent television program ... it is possible that many learn some of their attitudes about violence.'' My protest almost got me fired.

But TV can no longer hide its love affair with violence. The networks, feeling the heat and fearing federal intervention, now offer warning labels. But for the quarter of American families that are now single-parent families, the parent is usually at work. Who is there to exercise discretion? Isn't the warning actually bait for kids?

Congress has been looking at the problem of television and violence since 1952, and now there is some sentiment in Congress to control violence by legislation. One bill would mandate a chip enabling viewers to block out programs that the networks classify as violent. Networks are reluctant to put the label on for the obvious reason that advertisers will stay away from such programs. Rep. John Bryant (D) of Texas has a bill that says: Cut violence or you will be fined, and stations may lose licenses when they come up for renewal. In a Senate hearing, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio told network executives, ``Do something or else.''

This raises First Amendment issues. The courts hold that a regulated industry, using channels that really belong to the public, cannot escape regulation. But any move to regulate for contents stirs profound unease in a supporter of free speech and free press. Nothing is more likely to bring on a threat to the First Amendment than abuse of the First Amendment. By law, after all, television is supposed to operate ``in the public interest, convenience, and necessity.''

Why is it so hard to get television to control its love affair with violence? Because of perverse economic incentives. Because violence sells. Why does it sell? Because the public buys it. We all make the violence profitable.

I like Attorney General Janet Reno's recommendation that parents refuse to buy products that advertise on violent television programs. Does that sound like ``boycott''? Yes. But the problem of violence on television will not be resolved until economic incentives are reversed. Organized public action will be more effective than government regulation.

As for E. B. White's choice between ``saving radiance'' or ``unbearable disturbance'': We've had the disturbance. We wait for the saving radiance.

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